TAMPA — Three Hillsborough schools are closed this week as health officials try to slow the spread of the swine flu outbreak, with cases now suspected across the Tampa Bay region.
Five probable cases of swine flu were reported Sunday in Hillsborough, the most of any county in Florida, while authorities continue to await test results on a suspected case in Pinellas County.
In Hillsborough, the list includes an 11-year-old boy at Wilson Middle School in South Tampa and four adults between the ages of 18 and 22 from around the county.
Authorities say the 15-year-old sibling of one of the adult victims is showing symptoms of swine flu. Last week, she was in class at New Tampa's Freedom High, which shares a cafeteria with Liberty Middle.
All three schools are closed for the week.
Authorities acknowledged that sending almost 4,000 Hillsborough students home for the week will be difficult for working parents. They don't want these children getting together at malls, movies or day care centers.
Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Hillsborough Health Department, said the unknown dangers of the H1N1 virus, commonly called swine flu, demand acting quickly and with extraordinary caution.
"We do expect that compared to seasonal flu, that many more will get ill because they lack the immunity that we have for our seasonal strains," he said, noting that 36,000 people die every year in the United States from the seasonal flu. "We could see many more deaths."
Three Hillsborough schools closed all week
Beginning this morning, cleaning crews will scrub the cafeterias, media centers and other common areas at Freedom High, and Wilson and Liberty middle schools. The effort will focus on places touched by many students, such as hand rails and bus seats.
The decision to close the schools touched off a flurry of activity late Sunday.
School officials are making arrangements for Freedom students to make up the nationally administered Advanced Placement exams that begin this week, Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.
Extracurriculars are canceled. Public health officials said siblings of the affected students may attend classes Monday, as long as they are healthy. Regardless of whether their school is open, sick students should stay home.
The district is working to get lessons posted to school Web sites by this afternoon. The principals will be placed in district offices, with school phone numbers redirected there, so they can answer questions from parents.
They will not reveal the identities of the sick students.
"We're going to assume that everybody had contact, hence the reason the schools are closed," Freedom principal Chris Farkas said. "If you see any signs or symptoms, talk to the doctor and let the experts make that decision, not us."
Even before the district sent out official notice through automatic phone calls in the late afternoon, text messages and e-mails spread the news virally Sunday through much of Freedom's population.
"It was just going like wildfire," said parent Carol Harris, vice president of the school's parent teacher student association, who had gotten enough information to worry, but not to know what to do to keep her three sons, freshman twins and a junior, safe.
Harris is especially concerned about one of her freshman sons, who has cerebral palsy, and making sure his immune system isn't compromised.
"Obviously," she said, "I'm anxious and nervous."
In South Tampa, Wilson Middle School parent Paula Meckley said she wasn't fretting about her 11-year-old son, who is the same age as the boy at his school identified as one of the county's probable cases. "I'm not panicked about it," said Meckley, president of Wilson's PTSA, who is in close contact with the school's principal. "If he gets it, he'll be fine. We're in America."
Hillsborough's cases: Scattered, mild
None of the five cases in Hillsborough has required hospitalization. Most are recovering.
County epidemiologists are still conducting interviews to learn more about the outbreaks, which appear mostly isolated.
Two men, ages 22 and 18, who are related to each other are among the stricken. Officials think they were exposed by a family member who recently visited Mexico.
But other cases did not involve travel to Mexico. And the cases are far flung, affecting people living in the northern and southern county, as well as the city of Tampa.
National numbers grow; CDC deluged
Officials are urging people to contact their doctor if they have flulike symptoms, including a fever, cough and sore throat.
State officials send the samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when their own tests cannot match them to a known virus. Hillsborough's five cases, and the one from Pinellas, have been sent to the CDC. While such referrals simply mean swine flu is possible, Hillsborough's Holt said at least 95 percent of these samples are coming back positive. He said that the CDC is backlogged with cases from around the nation and that it could take up to five days to get confirmation on the Hillsborough cases.
Meanwhile, the numbers continue to grow in Florida and beyond. The CDC confirmed 245 cases affecting 35 states, and the CDC's Dr. Anne Schuchat said she expected the numbers "to jump quite a bit."
Florida logged its third official case, a 14-year-old girl from Mexico visiting Central Florida. She has returned to Mexico, authorities said.
Florida now has 15 probable cases from nine counties, the state Department of Health said.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Will Van Sant and news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this article. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3322.